ECF Vital Posts shines spotlight on Hybrid Faith Formation Cohort
ECF Vital Posts shines spotlight on Hybrid Faith Formation Cohort

Online learning bus

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Posts blog. It was originally published here. Subscribe to Vital Posts for more profiles of church leadership in action—and more stories of the 2014 Hybrid Faith Formation Cohort. 

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve learned a lot about how new ministry models emerge: Collaboratively. In fits and starts. Through a creative combination of need and excitement. With more failures than successes. And by the power of the Spirit of God who never fails to make her presence known when we’re on the right track.

The story of hybrid faith formation began at the2013 Forma Conference.  My friend and colleague Day Smith Pritchartt had read an article I wrote about “faith formation networks,”  eporting on work by John Roberto as part of the Faith Formation 2020 research project he helped lead.

I was excited because faith formation networks seemed to be a great answer to a question I get by phone, email, and social media inquiry every couple of weeks in my job in the faith formation resource center where I work:

What do we do with the people who say they want to learn but can’t come to a weekly Bible study, or even Sunday school?

Day was excited too. But she wanted me to get more concrete about what a network could actually look like in her context.

What we brainstormed there in the exhibit hall was something like a hybrid course (a class where online work supplements time in the classroom) and something like a classic small group ministry. We called it a “hybrid faith formation” network and listed off what we thought would be essential components:

  1. Connect interested individuals or families via a contextually appropriate “hub” (social networking group, shared blog, or email listserv).
  2. Gather the group for monthly in-person meetings to build community and introduce important concepts and skills.
  3. In the intervening time, learn “alone together” (we use the term in a positive light) by trying out leader-provided activities at home and discussing the experience online.

Six months later, we were launching the Hybrid Faith Formation Network Initiative  — which we’ve since abbreviated to Hybrid Faith Formation Cohort, a minor improvement in the wordiness department. We gathered seven leaders from different congregations and dioceses to try out a hybrid network with each other while, simultaneously, each individual leader started experimenting in his or her own setting. Some took, most didn’t. But we learned a lot.

Six months after that, Day (a HFF cohort participant, of course) wrote “Shutting down the Sunday school” about her congregation’s whole-hearted embrace of this new model of congregational learning. The article immediately went viral (at least by the standards of our center’s relatively new blog) and was also picked up by the Anglican Communion News Service.

We did our best to spread the news about what we were learning, giving talks at academic and practical religious education conferences. Our efforts culminated at the 2014 e-Formation Conference, where our workshop was packed and where we did some recruiting.

This fall, Day and I are co-leading the second hybrid faith formation cohort. A lot has changed. Our network hub looks different (we’ve given up on Google+ except for web conferencing via Hangouts), our participants look different (nine new leaders from four different faith denominations), and our learning goals look different (hint: we’re trying to do less, not more).

Our first Hangout was two weeks ago, before “program season” began in earnest in our participants’ congregations. Already we’ve learned more than I can share in one post.

Thankfully, this is the first in a series about hybrid faith formation and the experience of our 2014 cohort. I hope you’ll read along with us, send us your feedback, and help us spread the word. We think the Spirit is saying to the church that this is a congregational learning idea whose time has come. We’d love your help continuing to discern the way ahead.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.

Image credit: “Online learning” by STML via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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